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Lionel Ames’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Lionel Ames is an Army and Manhattan Project veteran. In this interview, he talks about how his brother Maurice “Maury” Shapiro, who worked as a scientist at Los Alamos, was able to get him assigned to the top-secret site. Ames recalls his work at Los Alamos in the chemistry lab, and his role as a cantor for the weekly Jewish services. He also discusses daily life at Los Alamos. He concludes by discussing his post-war life as an entertainer.

Date of Interview:
February 22, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It’s February 22, 2017. I have Lionel Ames with me. My first question to him is tell us your full name and spell it, please.

Ames: Lionel Ames, L-I-O-N-E-L, Ames, A-M-E-S.

Kelly: Terrific. First question is to tell us something about yourself: when you were born and where.

Ames: Okay. I was born March 6, 1923, in Chicago, Illinois. Then I went to grammar school and went to high school, and I went to two years of engineering college, and then I was drafted. I was in the Army approximately ten months when my brother, Dr. Maurice Shapiro—I will shortly tell you why my name is different, because I was originally Lionel Shapiro. I was drafted in the Army approximately ten months, and my brother went to Los Alamos, New Mexico. He saw soldiers working side-by-side with civilians. He got me on Los Alamos, New Mexico.

I went there, and it was a wonderful place. I worked in the chemistry lab. I worked on the implosion part of the bomb. I loved it. I was there approximately two and a half years, approximately two, two and a half years. Being an entertainer and a freelance cantor, I conducted Friday night services there every Friday. I did it on my own, and I conducted a Passover Seder there at Los Alamos.

When my time was up, Dr. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer sent me a letter asking me to stay on. I was flabbergasted. When I got out, I didn’t accept it, because I wanted to finish college. I went back to Chicago and I finished my engineering degree in industrial engineering.

The next day, I went into show business. That was deep down inside me, went into show business. I changed my name to Lionel Ames, from Lionel Shapiro. That’s what I did. I was in Chicago about two years, and I went to New York for five or six years. I was in three Broadway shows, I did a lot of entertaining there, three Broadway shows as an actor and a singer. Then about five or six years later, I came with a show here, a ten-week show including Carol Burnett, who was there at the time. She was not well-known. It was many years ago. Then I came to California, and I went into show business. That’s my story.

Kelly: That’s a great story. I want to go back to Los Alamos.

Ames: Yes.

Kelly: I am very interested in your work as a freelance cantor, and what you can tell us about what the Jewish community was like among the scientists there on the Hill.

Ames: There were plenty of Jewish people there, because they had a lot of people came to my Friday night services, and they came to my Passover Seder.

I worked at the chemistry lab. Sometimes I went to work at night. I didn’t get paid overtime, but I loved what I was doing. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to brag about it, but I figured something out: the implosion part of the bomb, the liquid that we had to freeze, they froze with a lot of cracks in there. I came up an idea of how to eliminate the cracks. They gave me six people to help me, which I was flattered. Then we worked on it, and I don’t know what the results were, what happened after that. But I guess maybe that’s one of the reasons Dr. Oppenheimer sent me a letter to stay on. I’m not sure.

Kelly: Well, it must have worked.

Ames: Yeah, or something.

Kelly: You must have solved the problem.

Ames: I hope so.

Kelly: Yeah. That’s great. But you changed your name primarily—

Ames: Because I went into show business, from Lionel Shapiro to Lionel Ames, yes.

Kelly: Because of the prejudices in Hollywood?

Ames: It’s a so-called professional name for a better reason. Yeah, you could say that, yeah.

Kelly: I know your brother, your older brother [Maurice “Maury” Shapiro].

Ames: Yes, you told me you knew him well.

Kelly: I did. He was a marvelous man.

Ames: He was a great guy, a great brother.

Kelly: He was your older brother?

Ames: Yeah, he was my only brother. I had four sisters, and then he was my brother.

Kelly: He kind of shepherded you to Los Alamos?

Ames: Yeah. He got me into Los Alamos.

Kelly: You said that he said, “There are Army people, so why don’t you come?” Were you in the Army?

Ames: Not, “Why don’t I come?” He got me in. I wasn’t going to say no.

Kelly: I see. You had a direct invitation to work there. That’s very unusual.

Ames: It’s a good thing. The Army base that I was on was sent overseas. I could have, you know, who knows what would have happened. He saved my life, in more than one way.

Kelly: Yeah. Wow. What do you remember about living in Los Alamos? Where did you live?

Ames: I lived in a barrack, and I was two blocks away from where my brother lived. We used to play tennis together, and my nephew was born there. That’s how I got to see you, because my nephew donated $150 to the [Atomic Heritage] Foundation in my honor, which I was very flattered. Then you called me and here I am. I’m very touched and moved by it.

Kelly: That’s great. Did you work extremely hard? You say you worked some nights?

Ames: I worked the nights on my own. I didn’t have to, nobody told me I had to, but I loved it. I didn’t get overtime, I was in the Army. But I loved it, so I loved what I was doing there. It was a wonderful experience for me in many ways.

Kelly: Do you remember some of the people who inspired you or people you worked with, or your colleagues at Los Alamos, other than your brother? Any names?

Ames: Not really. My boss there, I don’t remember his name, but he was my boss there on the project.

Kelly: Did it feel like a small community to you?

Ames: Oh, sure, oh, sure. It was a very private then. Not many people knew what the place was all about, for obvious reasons.

Kelly: Right. Did you get out at all? Did you get down to Santa Fe?

Ames: I did, yeah. I went there once in a while.

Kelly: Do you remember going to La Fonda, the hotel on the plaza?

Ames: No.

Kelly: It’s just the same. They’ve just restored it to look like it was then.

Ames: Yeah.

Kelly: Did you happen to go through the 109 East Palace, the office where Dorothy McKibbin held forth? Maybe you didn’t need to do that?

Ames: No.

Kelly: No. That doesn’t ring a bell? So, you had a very special experience.

Ames: Yeah. I’m a very lucky man, very lucky. God was on my side.

Kelly: You were technically still part of the Army, though, right?

Ames: Yeah, oh, sure.

Kelly: You weren’t part of the Special Engineer Detachment?

Ames: No, no. I think some of the people who I worked with were civilians.

Kelly: Sure. It was mainly civilians.

Ames: Oh, yeah, sure.

Kelly: But in the barracks, you were with other—

Ames: In the barracks, I was with all soldiers.

Kelly: Right. Did you have to wear your uniform?

Ames: I wore my uniform. I was a staff sergeant then.

Kelly: How did you get around? Did you have access to a Jeep? Did you bicycle?

Ames: That’s a good question. I don’t remember how we got to Santa Fe when I visited there. I don’t remember. It wasn’t last week!

Kelly: Right, exactly. I’m probing deep memories. How old were you when you—

Ames: I was about twenty-two, twenty-three.

Kelly: Wow.

Ames: Now, in two weeks, I’m going to be ninety-four.

Kelly: Oh, my. Congratulations.

Ames: Thank you. I’m very lucky. I have young genes, that’s why I don’t look my age. I’m also a holistic person, so I try to take care of myself.

Kelly: Are you still performing?

Ames: Not anymore.

Kelly: Did you ever get involved in entertainment at Los Alamos?

Ames: I was in a play there, too. I didn’t have a big part, but I was in a play. I forgot the name of the play. But as far as entertaining is concerned, it’s the cantorial thing that I did on Friday nights and Passover.

Kelly: How did you learn to be a cantor?

Ames: My father was an Orthodox rabbi, and I grew up in that surrounding.

Kelly: Can you tell me more about him?

Ames: He was a wonderful father.

Kelly: Where was he born?

Ames: He was born in Europe, but at an early age he went what was then called Palestine, then eventually became Israel. That’s how I got my training and became a cantor, because I was able to sing. I became a cantor and also an entertainer, an English entertainer. I mixed everything together and separately.

Kelly: That’s great. There were a lot of creative people at Los Alamos.

Ames: Oh, sure.

Kelly: Also, musically inclined and theatrically inclined. Did you ever go to any plays in the Little Theatre, as they called it?

Ames: Where?

Kelly: The playhouse at Los Alamos?

Ames: I participated in one play. But, that’s about it. I don’t remember if I went to another, I don’t know how many times they had plays there, I don’t remember. It wasn’t yesterday, you know.

Kelly: Right. You had four sisters. Where do they fall in the sibling order? Were they younger than you?

Ames: I was second to the youngest. The three sisters were older than me. They were born in Israel, and my younger sister and myself were born in Chicago.

Kelly: Were they involved in the war? Did they get caught up in World War II?

Ames: No.

Kelly: Interesting.

Ames: Of course, there was my brother. He was involved at Los Alamos, of course.

Kelly: Exactly. I can see him now. We had a conference there he spoke at, in Los Alamos, in the big gymnasium or auditorium they have at the high school. That was a while ago, too, 2001 or ’02. Let me ask you some more about, about your services. Do you remember where they were held?

Ames: Which services?

Kelly: The ones you were cantoring.

Ames: There was a hall there at Los Alamos. I don’t remember. It was a hall that I used that we had whatever amount of people we had there. The same hall when we had the Passover Seder, I conducted at the same hall. We had a couple hundred people there.

Kelly: What did your father think of that? Was he proud of you?

Ames: I’m sure he was.

Kelly: That’s great. After this, after Los Alamos, you got your degree?

Ames: Then I went straight into show business, yeah. First, primarily as an actor and an entertainer, and then I gave up the acting, because it was a precarious profession. I stayed in entertaining. I was an entertainer, I was a corporate entertainer and I provided music and entertainment, other than myself. I was an event planner, that’s the word I was looking for. I was busy seven nights a week.

Kelly: Oh, my goodness.

Ames: I had a wonderful wife, and have three great children. You may know one of them. You know the television show “Everybody Loves Raymond?” Brad Garrett is my son.

Kelly: Oh wow.

Ames: Raymond’s brother in the show.

Kelly: That’s fun. Like father, like son.

Copyright 2017 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.